The Next Big Thing in Urban Planning: Wood

Urban planning has been a thing since there have been cities, the first of which popped up during the Agricultural Revolution, so around 10,000 BC. While the first towns and cities were probably made of clay and wood, as far back as the 26th century BC, the Sumerians were building some pretty impressive structures of clay brick. In fact a major driving force in the changes in architecture in those cities has been the availability of new materials: Clay giving way to wood, wood to brick, brick to steel, and now, in Sweden, back to wood.

Urban development company Atrium Ljungberg has unveiled plans to construct the world’s largest wooden city in Stockholm. The construction will begin in 2025 and the first buildings are expected to be installed in 2027.

It’s an ambitious project and the company aims to redefine urban living through “sustainability, innovation and aesthetic excellence,” said the company in a press release.

The project has used timber to address the environmental challenges faced by Swedish cities. Wood results in far less carbon emissions than steel and concrete and timber construction emits less pollutants. Timber is fireproof, which is important given the increase in forest fires due to climate change.

Wait, what? Timber is fireproof? Mrs. O’Leary’s cow would like a word. Last I checked timber was, you know, wood, and last I checked, wood burns pretty well. In fact we heat our Alaska home through Alaska winters in part by burning wood. So I’m not sure on what the “timber is fireproof” claim is based, especially since later in that same sentence, it’s claimed that there is an increase in forest fires due to climate change. Forests are, after all, made of timber, so unless there is some treatment of the wood in question involved, this piece manages to contradict itself inside of a single sentence.

Of course, the real advantage to the wood city is, naturally, that it reduces emissions.

Buildings account for almost 40 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions. And there’s been a push by the New European Bauhaus, an initiative launched by the European Commission in 2020 to connect the European Green Deal to living spaces and experiences. Old conventions and beliefs have slowed down development, said the press release.

“We are proud to introduce Stockholm Wood City. This is not only an important step for us as a company, but a historic milestone for Swedish innovation capability,” said Annica Ånäs, CEO of Atrium Ljungberg. “Stockholm Wood City manifests our future. From tenants, there is a strong demand for innovative, sustainable solutions – a demand that we meet with this initiative.”

What isn’t clear is how wooden buildings will somehow produce less CO2 emissions than any other buildings. As with so many claims made in favor of “green” and “sustainable” projects, they are claiming A < B without providing values for A and B; one presumes that the operating assumption is that harvesting, transporting, processing wood, and building wooden buildings produces fewer emissions than producing other building materials. Of course, these buildings aren’t all wood; plumbing, wiring, and so forth will still require conventional materials like copper, aluminum, and steel. In fact, if you look at the concept art in this piece, you can see a lot of glass, metal railings on balconies, and so forth. It’s doubtful that these buildings, once complete, will require any less energy to heat, cool, and maintain than a building of steel and glass, so it’s unclear where the savings in emissions are coming from.

Wood is a great building material. I grew up in a house made mostly of wood, and I live now in a house made mostly of wood. Treated timber is relatively light, has good tensile strength, it holds up well in hot or cold climates. Wood is also a renewable resource, and most wood built for construction, like most wood used for paper, is purpose-grown, not taken from the beautiful old-growth forests that environmentalists love to show you pictures of.

But building an entire city of wood? Including the high-rise structures shown? It would be interesting to have more information on costs and so forth, but you can color me skeptical.

Question: Will the designers of the Stockholm Wood City be attending Davos next year to talk about this breakthrough? And will the Doom Pixie be moving in when the project is complete?

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